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Bucks Fizz at daybreak and all the basses in Baku

Here’s the second instalment of Anna Blundy’s report for Slipped Disc on the Rostropovich Festival in Baku, an event where many coped bravely with a sense of bereavement.

Last Thursday, December 7, the English Chamber Orchestra was on its way to Baku, Azerbaijan, to take part in the 6th annual Rostropovich Festival, this year marking the 85th anniversary of the cellist and composer’s birth in the city. The festival is organised by the Rostropovich Foundation in conjunction with the government of Azerbaijan and the dynamism behind the event is the Foundation’s President, Olga Rostropovich.

 At Heathrow check-in for the British Airways flight to Baku ‘Fragile’ labels were pasted on shining cello cases, BA staff whispers about what could fit where in the cabin and what might go in the hold could be heard amid the early morning airport chaos. Excitement was high but where, I wondered, was Maxim Vengerov, scheduled not only to play the following night at Baku’s Magomaev Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall, but also to conduct Bulgarian pianist Plamena Mangova playing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor.
Settling into the staggering luxury of British Airways Club World (the seats flatten to beds and have a massage function) and sipping a delightful early morning bucks fizz, I spotted Vengerov getting on with his 1727 Kreutzer Stradivarius tucked under his arm (in its case, obviously). He sat down across the aisle from me and my heart fluttered. No, really. Though he was suffering from flu, he was utterly charming, conducting the Shostakovich in his head from the score for most of the journey, telling bad jokes and then going through the Shostakovich with Mangova who was also in the cabin (though drinking less champagne than me). If you must know he opted for the pasta in tomato sauce. When I told him I was scared of flying he said it would be fine and did I know the Russian joke about plane crashes? Q: Where is it better to be in a crash – at the front or the back? A: The front because all the trolleys with the booze on them roll forwards.
The next night at the State Philarmonic everyone was in a frenzy for Vengerov. The crowd, including small children dressed up in bows and ribbons, roared when he took the stage, not with Stephanie Gonley, as planned, for her father had sadly just passed away. They played Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins and Continuo in D Minor, Vengerov’s firework display of charisma igniting us all. Then he played Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major and Massenet’s Meditation from Thais. Though he’d wanted to pull out altogether because he felt so ill, there was not a trace of anything but passion and pleasure in his performance, he was alight as if it was the best day of his life. And perhaps it was the best day of ours.
Though Ravel’s Tzigane was on the programme it wasn’t played. Gossip in the orchestra was that the local harpist hadn’t played it very well in rehearsal. Then Mangova plunged into the Shostakovich, her mouth moving as though she was gasping the music in as she played. Mikhail Gayduk’s trumpet floated through the auditorium like an angel’s voice (apparently, he is so shy that he can hardly bear to take a bow). Though the applause for Mangova was, of course, rapturous, the attention afterwards was all on Maxim in his midnight blue velvet jacket, whose love for his audience feels like a blessing, a kiss for each individual in the hall.
Afterwards, the Brits drank and danced at the Mugham Club, a restaurant on Baku’s boulevard, where the Rostropovich Foundation had laid on dinner. Maxim, sadly, had taken himself off to bed.
The next night the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra rucked up in town, minus three of their double basses which hadn’t fitted in the hold, including that of first bass, Alberto Bocini. By the end of the day, three basses had been found in the city and one festival organiser from Moscow said; ‘That really is it. Those are all the double basses in Baku. There are no more left.’  Afterwards I asked Bocini how the basses had sounded. ‘Not good,’ he said.
Before the concert the Italians were backstage being…very Italian. There was tuning up, practising, gesturing, shouting and lots of half naked men changing into white tie by their coffin-like travelling cases. Dishevelled hippies transformed into gallant beaux. Priceless instruments playing scales, nobody able to find the way from the backstage to the foyer without going onto the stage itself -‘Porca miseria!’ – and the world’s rudest ever usher (and the competition for that title is notoriously stiff) shouting at musicians, press and entourage without discrimination.
Then the calm. The shuffling silence. The beginning.
zubin with olga rostropovich, the night galina died
photo: Zubin Mehta with Olga Rostropovich, waiting
As Zubin Mehta swept onto the stage at the Heydar Aliyev Palace on December 8th, watched by his wife Nancy up in the middle of the stalls, word was that Galina Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich’s wife, was ill and fading fast. She had been brought back from Germany to her dacha at Zhukova outside Moscow and emotion was running high. Might Olga Rostropovich, her daughter, not come to the concerts? But she did – dignified, beautiful and feted, she watched and listened as the orchestra played Schubert’s Music for Rosamunde, Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (Eroica), under a banner photograph of Rostropovich sitting rapt behind his cello.
At the encore Mehta dedicated a Verdi fragment to his ‘dear friend Galina Vishnevskaya’ and was obviously emotional, visibly tearful when he took his final bow, just as she, in faraway Moscow was taking hers.
On the following night, at the festival’s grand finale, Olga Rostropovich got up on stage with the Azeri Minister for Culture to thank Baku and the Aliyev Foundation for their help in organising and supporting the festival and to talk about her late father’s love for his birthplace and its people. She looked brave and fragile, beautiful with her sharp black bob and demure dark dress, knowing her mother was dying.
The Florentines played Verdi’s overture from La Forza del Destino, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol and Dvorak’s Symphony No.7 in D minor, big crowd-pleasing numbers that had Mehta bouncing on his heels. Leaping back onto the rostrum for the encore, Mehta didn’t bow or smile or get the orchestra back up – he plunged them head first into Brahms Hungarian Dance No.2 and we in the audience roared with joy.
At dinner afterwards the Italians were treated to a mugham concert (an Azeri musical art form, sung poetry with traditional instruments) and an Azeri buffet supper. Mehta and Baku’s glitterati, not impressed by the buffet, were swept off into the main restaurant where seating was, thankfully, available.
Olga Rostropovich sat up late at the Park Inn hotel with women from her foundation, a charity which, apart from the festival programme, also supports child health programmes world-wide and young musicians who apply to the foundation for study grants and are scouted from music schools throughout Russia. (The hotel, delighted to be full of talent, life and nervous excitement, was in the process of constructing its real gingerbread archway in the foyer – the Italians kept eating chunks of the gingerbread.)
In the morning Olga Mstislavovna told me how sure she is that her father is waiting for her in heaven and that he will have been busy getting everything prepared for the rest of the family. Galina Vishnevskaya, who died two days later on December 11th, has now joined him.
The Fourth International Mstislav Rostropovich Festival will take place in Moscow on March 27- April 3, 2013.
Anna Blundy is a journalist and author of the Faith Zanetti quintet – The Bad News Bible, Faith Without Doubt, Double Shot, Neat Vodka and My Favourite Poison. These and her latest novel The Oligarch’s Wife are available on Amazon.
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